Three strategies to combat the Islamic State insurgency
I am in the camp that believes Iraq’s current situation is not intractable. With sufficient clarity, political will and coordination, its ethnosectarian strife can be put to an end. Here are some thoughts:
Redrawing borders: a functioning federalism
The geopolitical architecture of the Iraqi state has collapsed. In the grip of ethnic and sectarian conflict, the country has been effectively partitioned by the federal devolution of power to the Kurds, by the Sunni rebellion in places like Anbar province, and by ISIL’s insurgency. A federal solution, as suggested by Joe Biden, in which local populations would be granted a degree of autonomy while enjoying the support of Baghdad in terms of infrastructure, benefits and in providing military support, I believe is a great hope. I think the Westphalian order can be preserved, but the Arab state system, itself a product of Western imperialist machinations (the system emerged from the Sykes-Picot Agreement negotiated between Britain and France after the fall of the Ottoman Empire), is destined to be overhauled.
Supporting democratic forces: a new Anbar Awakening
In the face of the ISIL threat, providing support to countervailing, non-sectarian, pro-democratic forces, such as the Kurdish Peshmerga, should be a component of any strategy to combat the insurgency. More generally, we should remember that the local population is the centre of gravity of any insurgency and must be disconnected from it. We should repudiate the modern strategies of counter-terrorism, which have had the perverse effect of further radicalising local populations (a lesson American military planners learned in Vietnam, which they seem now to have forgotten), and instead pursue a counter-insurgency with a “hearts and minds” focus. A grand-scale awakening of tribal opposition to ISIL, like that which neutralised the Al Qaeda insurgency in Anbar Province during the Iraq War, should be promoted.
Thinking on our sins: an end to the meddling
Any solution to the crisis must involve Western powers, and their regional allies, thinking on their sins. Their role in destabilising the frangible polity of Iraq, through the Iraq invasion, the de-Ba’athification process and their machinations in Syria, must be recognized. The synchronisation of the policies of Western states and their regional allies on the ISIL threat is also essential. It is currently deeply contradictory.
A number of pro-Western regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, propagate extreme Wahhabism, the ideological fountainhead of the ISIL insurgency, and others, such as Turkey, lend tacit support to the group by allowing them access to their oil black markets.
We have, as Noam Chomsky put it, created a fundamentalist Frankenstein in Iraq. It is an internationally marauding beast and we must look beyond hard power strategies to combat it.